210 10th Ave (between 22nd and 23rd St, Chelsea)
Fatty Kat Eats: Creamy Orzo 'Mac N Cheese, Buttermilk Pancakes, Lemon Chicken
Empire Diner is an institution in Chelsea with a history that spans nearly 70 years...at least that's what trusty Wikipedia tells me. I was barely a chicken nugget that long ago, but I can fully appreciate how previous incarnations of this restaurant morphed a once very sketchy neighborhood into the creative arena that exists today.
Unfortunately, we were victims of Empire Diner's latest rebirth by Chef Amanda Freitag. The food was generally more disappointing than mediocre because you could tell how hard they tried to be creative and different. Somewhere along the way, someone forgot to taste the food. To be fair, there were a few high points, but not enough to justify all the hype or honor the restaurant's past.
I'm a sucker for matzoh ball soup, so when I saw the word "marrow" tucked between "matzoh ball" and "soup," I had no choice but to try it. Words cannot describe how unquestionably terrible this bowl of soup was. The Matzoh Ball Marrow Soup actually sent me into depression for the rest of the meal, but thankfully, my good friends pulled me out of it. The broth tasted nothing of chicken and seemed to be flavored solely by horseradish and dill. What a waste of fresh vegetables and bone marrow. Everything was overpowered by the nauseating broth except one lucky matzoh ball. 1 point for presentation, but that's it!
When you see the words Chili Cheese Fries, you think you're actually getting fries, right? Don't be silly! This starter was essentially a bowl of chili with the occasional fry (if you're lucky). You probably can't tell, but we were dealing with sweet potatoes fries. Sure, the chili packed a salty and spicy punch, but there were no fries to soak up the mess!
This one's my fault. The Buffalo Skate Wings sounded too edgy to actually be appetizing, so I take full ownership of this why-the-f*ck-did-I-order-this dish. I was craving fried fish, so I went back and forth between this one and the Fish & Chips. I would've been much happier with the latter, but c'est la vie. Skate is by far too lean to fry into anything resembling a buffalo chicken wing, and the cole slaw-type thing happening below was literally swimming in a creamy broth (lord knows why).
Thank you food gods for bestowing us with at least one good dish to start. The Creamy Orzo 'Mac N Cheese was a gem among a bunch of dirty rocks. I rarely see orzo served in anything but a pasta salad, so I was excited to try one of my favorite pastas covered in a mound of cheese. The creamy sauce hinted at a lovely black truffle butter, while the broccoli and breadcrumbs offered a beautiful crunch. In the realm of 'mac n cheese, this was a long lost crazy cousin. It was not the American staple we all know and love, but that was fine by me!
It would be a damn shame if Empire Diner had messed up a plate of pancakes. I'm happy to report that was not the case. The Buttermilk Pancakes were topped with apple compote and a healthy dose of powdered sugar. I loved these thick and fluffy pancakes, but mostly because they saved me from a deep depression after trying the skate wings.
It's nearly impossible to mess up a Grilled Cheese, but Empire Diner managed to destroy that too. I love me some buttery toast, but the bread was completely soaked with butter. Soaked, not brushed. The delicious cheese and tomato combo couldn't save the day either. You would probably need a shower after touching this thing.
Thank goodness I got a taste of the Lemon Chicken. It slightly renewed my faith in food during a long stretch of hopeless mediocrity. The chicken was wonderfully juicy with some help from the delicious lemony broth. I also thought the sides of ricotta and carrots were a great idea to spruce up a simple dish. No one can deny the power of ricotta!
We didn't order dessert. If you know me well, you know this is a huge deal for me. I always need something sweet! It doesn't matter if it's fruit, ice cream, soufflé, cheesecake, whatever. Dessert didn't happen during this particular meal...by choice. The doughnut holes sounded great, but we couldn't bear the thought of anymore disappointments.
Did I mention our server seemed high throughout the meal? What's wrong with the picture on the right? All food and no utensils! There's nothing more annoying for a bunch of voracious fatties.
The updated interior was pretty yet subdued. I was surprised how "original" everything looked. However, the booths were uncomfortably narrow. I'm Fatty Kat, but even I'm not fat enough to complain about fitting into a booth. I can't imagine I'll be back anytime soon. Sure, the restaurant had only been open for 9 days when we visited, but I'd expected much more than what we got at the 9-day mark. It seems like Amanda Freitag is made for the Food Network. That way, we never actually have to eat her food.